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A brief history of the railways

13 September 2018

A brief history of the railways

As one of the most popular forms of travel in the world, railways have earned their place in the pantheon of human transport. From horsepower right through to high-speed locomotives, the history of railways has featured some of the most ingenious moments in engineering as pioneers came up with different ways to perfect rail travel. What follows in this blog is our brief history of railways, and some of the most important moments in railway innovation:

The first railway

To begin our story, we're going right back to the Corinthians in Ancient Greece as far back as 600BC where the first predecessor of the railway system was built. This 'railway' or rather 'rutway' was a series of ruts which guided various carts on a track of around 4 miles, over a paved trackway. This was called the Diolkos, and it was designed to carry boats across the Isthmus of Corinth as an alternative to sailing the much longer route around the Peloponnese.

Funiculars, mines and metal

The next step in rail travel took place nearly 2,100 years later in Europe during the 16th century when the first ever known funicular was built in Salzburg, Austria and is still in operation today. It is known as the Reisszug and was used to cart passengers and goods up to Hohensalzburg Castle. Shortly after this rail breakthrough, there came the invention and usage of wagon ways. Operating on a similar system as the Diolkos, these wily creations were pulled by horses on sets of wooden rails, carrying mining apparatus and materials between mineshafts across Europe during the 1550s and onward.

The 1760s saw a major addition to railways in the shape of the metal rail. A simple inclusion to railways, these metal rails were introduced thanks to higher iron production around the world and the wooden rails gave way to what would be known as iron plateways. This in turn were replaced with steel as the quality of the material improved over the years.

The Power of Steam

Arguably the biggest and most dramatic change in railways and in fact, industry itself, was the mighty and multi-purposed application of steam. While steam power had been in use for decades before the work of engineer James Watt, it had only been used as a water pump principally and not much else. Watt changed all that, and changed transportation history forever with the invention of a reciprocating engine which when combined with his research on the use of high-pressure steam on pistons, saw the designing of the first ever steam locomotive in 1784. This revolutionised the concept of industry, and the first fully operational steam railway was opened in1804 near Merthyr Tydfil in Wales by an engineer called Richard Trevithick. This railway was used again for solely mining and ironworks purposes.

People on the move

While all the aforementioned railways came a long way, none were specifically used for human transport apart from the Reisszug.

All of this changed in 1807 when the Mumbles and Swansea Railway (in Wales again) was adapted to become a solely passenger based railway and consequently the first ever passenger rail service. Originally built as a quarry railway for limestone operating between Swansea and Mumbles, this horse-powered railway was built in 1805 before changing to a regular passenger service in 1807. The idea was taken on across Britain after this, developing past horse-power and into steam and electric. The Mumbles railway closed in 1959, but its position in railway history is undeniable.

Electricity and evolution

What followed in the years after came a freight load of iconic trains which shaped history in various ways. George Stephenson, one of the pioneers in rail history, came to the fore, perfecting a number of the designs, processes and inventions of the pathfinders who came before. His first invention was actually a safety lamp for miners, before he went on to apply himself to the railways. His creations included such trains as the Blücher, the first successful flanged-wheel adhesion locomotive, and the Locomotion, the first steam powered passenger train. He also came up with the idea for the first ever railway carriage which he called the 'Experiment'.

Electric railways came next in 1837, with the first built in Scotland by a chemist called Robert Davidson in Aberdeen. His design ran on batteries and he incorporated the same design into a larger locomotive called the Galvani. After the Galvani was destroyed by disgruntled railway workers, a similar train was built in Germany by Werner von Siemens, whose Lichterfelde Tram was the first tram ever built, supplied by running rails and an overhead line, powering up to 180 volt DC.

The age of diesel and the high-speed train

Diesel powered railways took rail travel to a new age, offering a more productive fuel to use that the coal and electricity of years gone. The first diesel railway was created in Switzerland as part of a collaborative effort between Rudolf Diesel, Adolf Klose and Gebrüder Sulzer. Despite this railway not being an immediate commercial success, the idea of diesel powered railways took off almost straight away after Hermann Lemp, an electrical engineer perfected a control system which simplified the driving of diesel trains down to a single lever.

The most recent advancement after diesel came to the fore was the introduction of the high-speed train. These trains come straight from the future, reaching astonishing high speeds as they zip across the landscape, reaching highs up to 267 miles per hour. The first of these was the magnificent Shinkansen, built between Tokyo and Osaka and since then, similar high-speed networks have been built across the world including in Great Britain, China and France.




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